Last year, Google’s homepage ran a picture to celebrate the 360th birthday of Bartolomeo Cristofori, inventor of the piano and keeper of instruments for the Medicis in Florence. The instrument Cristofori invented was originally called a “harpsichord with soft and loud” even though the distinction between the two is large (the harpsichord produces sound by plucking strings, the piano by striking them with a hammer). Only three of the newfangled instruments he made – all of them dating from the 1720s – survive.
More than a century later the piano recital was devised. It was Liszt who first decided to have the whole stage to himself, and set the fashion for dispensing with the mixture of celebrities and supporting acts that had prevailed up to that time. As he wrote about his audacity to a friend: “Le concert, c’est moi!” And he called his appearance at the Hanover Square Rooms in London in June 1840 not a concert but a recital.
The composer-pianists of the day concentrated on their own works. Liszt set a marker in this regard, too, choosing music that ranged from Bach through Beethoven and up to Chopin. He set the pattern for playing from memory, and cemented the platform layout we know today by turning the then-conventional position of the instrument on the stage through 90 degrees. He was what we would now call a sex symbol as well as a star musician, and the new arrangement allowed the audience to see his impressive profile as well as to hear the instrument more clearly. The standards he set have survived without significant alteration right up to the present.